Skip to main content

Now live! Explore the program for the upcoming 2024 Global Conference, taking place May 5-8, 2024.

Fixing the Food Supply Chain Could Prevent a Future, Even More Nightmarish Pandemic

Power of Ideas
Fixing the Food Supply Chain Could Prevent a Future, Even More Nightmarish Pandemic

There is a clear need, post-pandemic, for collaborative thinking on how to build immune resilience into older cohorts to reduce the risks of viruses such as COVID-19—and, potentially worse, deadly bacterial infections. We now know what the effects would be: the decimation of old and vulnerable people, a crushing of economies, and a curtailment of normal human liberty. 

Some of the necessary plans have already been imagined by organizations such as the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, as well as by governments, universities, and thinkers from all around the world.

These thoughts include the development of better therapies to improve immunity in elderly people; the reduction of factors causing vulnerability, including obesity, hypertension, and diabetes; the requirement for more effective treatments than the almost medieval initial response to the current pandemic; the repurposing of existing drugs as immune-boosting agents; and the regeneration of the primary and often compromised immune system. 

Fixing the food supply chain would go a long way to reducing pandemic risks in the future, while massively advancing healthy aging.

The area I want to touch on briefly relates to the work on food I have been doing during lockdown—specifically, the zoonotic origin of pandemics.

Fixing the food supply chain would go a long way to reducing future pandemic risks, while massively advancing healthy aging, and additionally ticking other boxes: reducing emissions, water consumption, and waste; eliminating antibiotic and hormone use in food; releasing land for housing and rewilding; and importantly, for some of us at least, reducing cruelty to animals. 

Let us face it, the main cause of this pandemic and the ones that went before is agricultural malpractice. This one seems to have originated in the Wuhan “wet market” and probably arrived via bats and pangolins. Wet markets are not small-time ventures in China—the trade in wildlife for human consumption is estimated to have been US $20 billion a year before the pandemic began. 

Of course, other recent pandemics have been caused by the intensive farming of pigs and chickens (swine fever and avian flu), again mostly in China. This is no time for blame, though, as my own country, the UK, was the locus for an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) about 25 years ago, and the US has had outbreaks of food poisoning every year—all due to agricultural and food hygiene failures. 

Even though this pandemic has cost the world an estimated US $8 trillion (so far), the next one could be even worse in terms of deaths and economic impact. This is because about three-quarters of all antibiotics used in the world go into farmed animals, and as those antibiotics flow through the food chain, we become more resistant to medicines. 

That is not good—we are the very end of the line in terms of the ability of antibiotics to treat some types of microbial infections. 

Imagine if a novel bacterial infection comes along, one totally resistant to antibiotics. Such a thing would make the COVID pandemic look like a walk in the park. We would face a Black Death redux; the scale of the devastation would be unimaginable. 

Luckily, there is help at hand for the food supply chain in the form of the new agrarian revolution. Here, meat (and it is meat that is the carrier cause of pandemics) becomes substituted by plant-based alternatives and, eventually, by lab-grown replicas. 

Neither of these alternatives contains antibiotics or hormones, the production process doesn’t involve climate-altering emissions, there is no microbial or fecal contamination, the use of land is considerably reduced, important minerals and vitamins can be engineered in, and no animals are hurt. 

What is more, we know that excessive consumption of meat is bad for us. Oh, and we can make the same replacements for fish, without the need to overfish oceans, which are already full of mercury and micro-plastics, or indeed without the need to farm fish, which are also treated with antibiotics. By the way, farmed fish now account for more than half of global fish consumption.

In the next decade, the source of our food will change dramatically; meat alternatives such as Beyond or Quorn have rapidly gained market share as have dairy alternatives. In a few years, foods grown in lab conditions will also be readily available and at reasonable prices.

If we want to stop the elderly from dying in droves in pandemics, stop the source. Fix the food supply chain!